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Oregon senators push for timber funds

WASHINGTON &

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden vowed Thursday to force a vote on a bill to continue payments to rural counties hurt by cutbacks in federal logging.

Wyden, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Public Lands and Forests subcommittee, also said he would resist efforts to rewrite a funding formula for the so-called county payments law to give Oregon less money and other states more. Lawmakers from other states &

particularly in the South and Midwest &

have complained that Oregon gets the lion's share of the timber payments, which have totaled more than $2 billion since 2000.

Wyden acknowledged that Oregon gets the biggest share, but said that was because it was hurt the most by federal policies that restricted logging in the 1990s to protect the northern spotted owl.

"Oregon gets the money because this is where God decided to put the trees," Wyden said. "And they are wonderful, beautiful trees."

Wyden spoke at a hearing on a bill he has sponsored to reauthorize the timber payments through 2013. Without the law &

formally known as the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act &

thousands of teachers and hundreds of law enforcement officers could be laid off, he said.

"If we do not choose to honor our obligation, schools, libraries, roads, public health and law enforcement could unravel" in hundreds of rural counties in 39 states, he said.

The timber law, which pumped $23 million into Jackson County coffers annually, expired last year, despite the efforts of Wyden and other Western lawmakers from both parties. Efforts to reauthorize it have been frustrated by budget constraints and concerns that Oregon gets too much money under the current formula.

Jackson County plans to lay off 10 percent of its work force and close libraries to alleviate the shortfall if the timber subsidies are not renewed.

Oregon, long a leading timber producer where more than half the land is owned by the federal government, received more than $149 million of $385 million distributed nationally last year by the U.S. Forest Service, far surpassing No. 2 California, which received $66 million. Washington state was third at $42 million; Idaho got about $21 million.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the ranking Republican on the forests subcommittee, said 25 counties in his state received a total of $1 million from the program. Total payments averaged about $5 per student in 2005, he said.

"Believe me, Chairman Wyden, I am envious of the $433 per student that Oregon counties received on average that year and can understand why some senators complain about how these funds are distributed," Burr said.

Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., defended Oregon's position, saying the formula was based on historical timber volumes. Smith cautioned that the law should not pit states against each other, or even one party against the other.

"I actually don't oppose (other states) getting more money," he said. "I oppose us getting less."

Smith and Wyden said again Thursday that reauthorization of the timber law is their top priority this year.

Wyden said he has been frustrated by the Bush administration's failure to make the law a priority, despite its stated support. He also criticized Republican leaders in Congress, who did not bring it up for a Senate vote in the last Congress.

"While I cannot predict or promise an outcome, I can promise my state this (Democratic-controlled) Senate will vote on whether or not it will honor its obligation to forested, rural counties," Wyden said.

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs U.S. forest policy, said he was "haunted" by Wyden's criticism, which he called unfair. The administration supports the timber law and has proposed selling up to 275,000 acres of national forest to help pay for the program, Rey said.

Wyden and other lawmakers called the land-sale a nonstarter and noted that the plan met bipartisan derision when the administration first proposed it last year. Wyden challenged Rey to find a single senator to co-sponsor the land sale plan.

"We'll put you down as leaning against," Rey joked.

If the land sale idea is rejected, the formula may have to be adjusted to take away money from more urbanized counties that are less dependent on timber, Rey said. He cited King County, Wash., which includes Seattle, as a prime example. The county received about $2.3 million last year &

money Rey said might be better spent in Skamania, Okanogan and other rural counties in the state.

That comment drew a sharp objection from Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

"I'm all for creativity, but I'm not for curtailing the program," she said.

Rey said later that his comments about King County also applied to counties near Portland. Boise; and Missoula, Mont.